Friday, August 28, 2009

Politics: Explaining Hatch

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've been inclined to be quite sympathetic to Utah senator Orrin Hatch over the years. Hatch, a Republican, has been in the United States senate since 1977, nearly my entire life. I was impressed with his polite and constructive demeanor on various political talk shows and during Supreme Court confirmation hearings in my teenage years. Thus, when my high school government class went through the inevitable exercise of simulating the senate, I chose to be a Republican senator from Utah. I made it so obvious that I was channeling Senator Hatch that at one point, our teacher actually called on me as "Senator Hatch" before correcting himself. (I'm probably not exaggerating much to claim that only the teacher, Dave Sherbrooke, and I appreciated what I was doing--I doubt any of the other students in that class had watched the Clarence Thomas hearings as most of the politically astute people in my class year had a different schedule that year.)

Besides the fact that he seemed to be a genuinely reasonable person, Hatch impressed me with some unconventional positions on issues over the years. Despite representing a very conservative (and very racially white) state, his positions on a number of issues have not been predictable. He has been one of the most outspoken senators in favor of stem cell research and other advanced medical technologies--a position contradicting the position of the Mormon Church, of which he is a member. He has favored loosening of immigration laws, being an original supporter of the H-1b visa (admittedly useful to some Utah companies) and of college education for the children of illegal aliens, certainly not a popular position in Utah. He even favors an amendment to the constitution that would allow naturalized citizens who have lived in the United States for twenty years to run for president. Most remarkably, despite some tough questioning during confirmation hearings, in the end he voted for both Clinton nominees for the Supreme Court.

Thus, it surprised me considerably when in the past six months or so, Hatch has seemed increasingly partisan and sometimes downright mean. He has spoken out forcefully against Democratic bills on health care reform (though it should be noted his statements have been factually accurate, unlike those of some Republicans). Most significantly, he voted against the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the first time he had ever voted against a Supreme Court nominee.

What was going on? It should have been obvious already, but the death of Senator Ted Kennedy brought it into focus. Hatch was a close friend of Kennedy, dating back to the early 1980's when the two started working together on legislation. Hatch, in fact, had been instrumental in passing the original State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) in 1997. Kennedy and Hatch made deals all the time, and kept them. Without a healthy Kennedy in the Senate, that pull on Hatch was no longer there. Combine that with the increasingly polar climate in the Senate, and it's not hard to understand the change in Hatch's behavior.

This underscores that every senator who is capable of working across the aisle matters. As each additional remaining one disappears to death or retirement, the Senate becomes a more partisan place. Even those who are fully capable of behaving differently, like Orrin Hatch, no longer have people across the aisle with whom to compromise. The US senate is in a downward partisan spiral--here's hoping some of the remaining veterans like Hatch stick around long enough to perhaps see a reversal of the trend.

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